Music legend Stevie Wonder performed two songs from the Fordham Commencement stage, but not before offering the Class of 2023 some inspiration—and a challenge.
“The youth are going to make the difference. I believe in you. That’s why I sing, and that’s why I’m motivated,” he said at the May 20 ceremony, just after receiving an honorary doctorate from the University.
‘Stand Up and Be Counted’
“Fordham has given you the tools to achieve, to excel, and to do great things in this world. But that’s not gonna happen by sitting on your hands,” he said.
“You’ve got to be activists. You have to vote. You have to serve your communities and you must enlighten the unenlightened.”
Wonder—a winner of 25 Grammys with 32 No. 1 singles— was honored for both his artistry and his leadership on social and humanitarian issues, such as making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a national holiday and expanding the availability of published works in accessible formats such as Braille, large print, and audiobooks.
He challenged the graduates assembled on Edwards Parade to use their education to respond to the realities of the world’s suffering.
“You really do have to be woke. Now, maybe some leaders in this nation don’t understand what being woke is. Let me tell you what it is. It’s being awake. And being awake means being aware,” he said, citing issues such as health care, education, and the recent chokehold death of homeless man Jordan Neely on the subway.
“So stand up and be counted as one against oppression, hatred, and let’s keep the truth alive,” he said.
To the crowd’s delight, a keyboard was brought on stage, drawing loud cheers from graduates and families who were gathered under a light rain.
Wonder sang a song from his new project, Through the Eyes of Wonder, before segueing into “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” drawing more cheers and applause.
‘What Makes You Special Is How You Will Use Your Gifts’
In her first Fordham Commencement address, Fordham President Tania Tetlow offered personal reflections about learning from her youngest sister, who graduated from high school despite having severe learning disabilities. She also talked about her parents and grandparents, who overcame the hardships of the Great Depression and World War II.
Like them, she said, the Class of 2023 has shown determination in the face of obstacles these past few years.
“There is so much about the pandemic we are eager to forget,” she said. “But when we look at those generations forged in the fires of suffering and crisis, we see the generations who’ve mattered most to history.”
And while she lauded graduates for their “blazing talent” and being “blessed by abundant gifts from God,” she cautioned that those gifts “do not make you better than anyone else.”
“What makes you special is not that good luck. It’s what you have done with your gifts. The endless hard work, in the library and the labs, the dance studios, and moot courtrooms. What makes you special is how you will use your gifts to matter to the world—as teachers, lawyers, social workers and health care workers, as business people who will build new forms of opportunity.”
Facing a fast-changing world with enormous courage, as graduates are, is quintessentially Jesuit, she said.
“Graduates, look around you—this is the family you have chosen. And Fordham is your forever home.”
The University conferred degrees upon 3,453 graduates today. Including those who graduated in August 2022 and February 2023, the University conferred about 5,453 academic degrees to the Class of 2023.
In addition to Wonder, Fordham conferred honorary doctorates on seven other notable figures: Norman Francis, a widely respected civil rights leader and former Xavier University president; Sharon Greenberger, president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater New York; Regina Pitaro, a Fordham trustee fellow, graduate of Fordham College at Rose Hill and a managing director of GAMCO Investors; Cardinal Michael Czerny, S.J., prefect of the Holy See’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development; Jeh Johnson, an attorney and widely quoted expert on national security issues who served as secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security from 2013 to 2017; and Jennifer Jones Austin, chief executive officer of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies in New York City.
— Photos by Bruce Gilbert, Chris Taggart, Chris Gosier, Marisol Diaz, and Matthew Septimus